Does the majority rule when it comes to religion in public schools? A West Texas public school official seems to think so.
Greg Nelson is in his first year as principal of Odessa High School. The Odessa American said that at Nelson’s last job, assistant principal of Permian High School, seniors voted on whether or not they wanted to have prayers at graduation.
When Nelson switched schools, he brought the voting system with him, the newspaper said.
Nelson seems to think this gives the school legal cover in case someone accuses the school of violating the constitutional separation of church and state.
“The issue is, should the school be called on it, that they weren’t ordered by someone at the school,” Mike Adkins, Ector County Independent School District communications director, told the newspaper on behalf of Nelson.
What the school officials don’t seem to understand is that student-approved coercive prayer is still coercive prayer, and the U.S. Supreme Court has said that type of invocation isn’t allowed. In their 2000 Santa Fe v. Doe decision, the justices specifically ruled against a Texas scheme that let students vote on whether to have prayers before football games.
Students are certainly allowed to pray on their own or in groups as long as they don’t infringe on anyone else’s rights. But when students are leading prayers at graduation, they are preaching to a captive audience. That’s wrong.
That’s why Nelson and his allies had best be careful, or they may find themselves mired in the sort of controversy that has overtaken a Kentucky school with a similar policy.
Lincoln County High School has a tradition of letting students vote on whether or not they want to have a student-led prayer at graduation, and in the past, they did.
This time, though, six students spoke up against the prayer practice, the Christian Post reported, and now the school has said no prayer this year. One student, at least, says that won’t stop him from leading an invocation.
“If I want to pray, the school can't stop me,” Jonathan Hardwick, senior class president at Lincoln County High, told WKYT, the CBS affiliate in Lexington, Ky.
Bradley Chester, a Lincoln County High senior who describes himself as atheist, told WKYT that he suggested a moment of silence in place of student-led prayer because “you shouldn't force your religion upon anybody.”
“This is a place for school, not a church. I feel like I'm graduating from Lincoln County High, not Lincoln County Church,” Chester said.
It’s hard to say what will happen if Hardwick chooses to defy the school, but either way someone is going to be angry here.
That’s why a moment of silence is the best policy. Odessa High School may one day realize that if it finds itself in a similar situation.
Graduation is supposed to be a time of celebration and unity, not one of exclusion and frustration. Allowing student-led prayers on a majority-rules basis is a fantastic way to create division and hatred, and no school should ever be in the business of fostering those things.
Let’s not forget that the Constitution is about protecting minority rights and rejecting majority tyranny. If these high schools in Texas and Kentucky would spend some time teaching that lesson, they would do their students a real favor.
Good citizens are not built on a foundation of “might makes right.”